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Updated: April 21, 2014 21:50 IST

Art that brings out the invisible

Rajesh Komath
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DALIT ART AND VISUAL IMAGERY: Edited by Gary Michael Tartakov; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, 1 Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 1495.
DALIT ART AND VISUAL IMAGERY: Edited by Gary Michael Tartakov; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, 1 Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 1495.

This collection of 13 chapters weaves together varied aspects of Dalit life in India and comes with fresh perspectivesThrough art and visual imagery of political and aesthetic expressions, it leads us through myriad social and cultural practices in a world dominated by the prejudices of untouchability and the social tensions experienced by Dalits, and their popular articulations, in order to overcome the injustices of the caste system. It would amaze us how subtly the messages of Buddha and Ambedkar are merged to communicate with the masses by depicting them as icons. Thus, it counters the hegemonic presence of Hindu gods and goddesses in the popular culture of the contemporary. The book traces the multiple strategies undertaken and struggles undergone by the Dalits by detailing how they have encountered the accepted notions of religion and culture, what methods they adopted to make their presence felt in a world that deemed them only fit to be silent.

The book poses questions such as: where are the images of Dalit lives or experiences which have been silenced and ignored? How far could this be located through art and visual images? What are the historical contexts that a Dalit’s perseverance in the creation of the Navayana Buddhist tradition makes Dalit lives visible?

The poetics and politics of addressing these questions attempt to bring the Dalit reality before the nation, through interesting case studies from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra. It also highlights how the Dalits have transformed and empowered themselves through multiple strategies including the mass conversion to Buddhism in 1956. With an apt selection of visual imagery, photographs, line drawings, paintings and colour plates etc in each chapter, the book tries to combine artistic interpretation along with the sociological imagination of the art, images and events in various parts of India.

Imageries of Buddha and Ambedkar

The roots of the rise and decline of Buddhism in India have been well traced in this volume. Ambedkar's adoption of Buddhist diksha at Nagpur brought forward mass conversion by an estimated three and a quarter million Buddhists as per the 1961 Census. This context has resurrected and revived Buddhist concepts and imageries. As a part of legitimatising religion and the Buddhist identity, symbols and motifs of Buddhist imagery have been widely appropriated from abroad, and consequently, new images were invented to suit the modern content.

Three types ofvisual imagery have been drawn upon by the Buddhists -- ancient imagery, import of foreign imagery and new creations referred to as ‘Navayana’. Similarly, they use them in three social contexts -- identification, legitimisation and exploration of identity. The re-use of Buddhist monuments has been central to the art in this direction. The special interest shown in Karli, Ajanta, Ellora and similar sites have thus provided significance to revival of Buddhism thus culminating as an appearance of Buddha's imagery in Dalit’s homes. Now, the famous Buddhas statues, Bodhisattvas and Chaityas of Sanchi, Sarnath and Bodh Gaya images in their homes replace Pandurang and Rukmabhai, and other Brahminical deities, indicative of Dalit assertion. At the same time, the images represent reverence and not deification.

The monumental portrait of Ambedkar became prominent in public displays. He is presented as ‘a man in a blue business suit, white shirt, and red tie, with a fountain pen in his pocket and a book in one hand’. The iconographic figure conveys these ideas — urban, erudite and human — not a god. The imagery and art with its political display articulates the dynamics and energies of social transformation. The production of such imagery in the text is indicative of how far the politics of Ambedkar has reached out to the common man. The bronze statue installed in the Oval Maidan in Mumbai is among the famous and earliest images of Ambedkar. This work of art by Brahmesh V. Wagh, has portrayed Ambedkar as an orator, dressed as a Bombay legislator, lawyer and teacher. Such Ambedkar statues placed in everyday spaces of Dalits marks a clear political assertion: to attain social respect and recognition otherwise negated by the caste-ridden Brahmanical order. These actions alert us to the instances of the physical attacks on these statues or images by law breakers which are to be seen as a testimony to the political meaning of this popular art.

The volume stresses on political struggles and mobilisation of Dalits in the North Indian body politic. It locates the social processes of these events by narrating B.R. Ambedkar's birth anniversary celebration in Agra, U.P. Through the display of floats, the Jatavs, a Dalit group in the area, present their thoughts, issues, and feelings about the unequal divisions of the social world. These celebrations invoke the social memory of humiliation and oppression that the Jatavs experienced in the past.

Dalit art

The responses from artists who call themselves Dalits point out that 'one has to be a Dalit to do Dalit art'. There are others using Dalit themes and issues in their art. They would not come under the category called 'Dalit art'. Similarly, counter questions like what about the art of those who belong to the Dalit category but his/her work of art is devoted to conventional themes which have little or nothing to do with the Dalit experience? Critical questions have been engaged here to identify aspects of experience and ideological wishes of the Dalits who wish to portray certain themes or aspects in their own way.

The essay on Milthila painting states that there is a remarkable Dalit intervention in this painting tradition which was once an upper caste art. Dalits redefined the content and context of the painting in their own way, or, the way they wished to portray their social reality.

This interesting collection of articles weaves together many aspects of Indian culture and society, focusing on Dalit life and their articulation in visual imagery and art. The clarity with which the subject is handled by each contributor lends credence to the conclusions arrived at, because often, such works become too subjective, and thus tend to lose objectivity in its perspectives. While going through each chapter, one could feel the freshness of the new methods and approaches and the labour put in by each author in order to construct their arguments. Fieldwork done through photography and ethnography has enabled the writers to observe at close quarters the social reality of the untouchables in India. The collection of images has been used in the book appropriately, and interpreted well. All facts whether collected or generated have been viewed through the Dalits lens. This is a work that brings forth what is invisible in our culture and society: untouchability and the emancipating strategies needed for social transformation.

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